Discovering Zionism in the diaspora
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Discovering Zionism in the diaspora

Ahavath Torah volunteers help 18 former Israeli soldiers ‘heal’ in Englewood

Host Ilana Gdanski drives former IDF soldiers to the mall. (Gdanski family)
Host Ilana Gdanski drives former IDF soldiers to the mall. (Gdanski family)

FIRST PERSON 

What can a Jewish community in the diaspora offer an elite IDF unit of released soldiers suffering from psychotrauma? The short answer is a heaping dose of Zionism and the warm embrace of “ahavat Yisrael”— brotherly love and appreciation.

For one week, the community of Congregation Ahavat Torah in Englewood enveloped a group of mostly secular Israelis with gratitude and appreciation, tending to their every need, providing creature comforts (food and shelter) as well as fun activities in the evenings, so they could have eight hours of therapy a day to process and heal from service-related psychotrauma.

Some background: Israeli soldiers in their 20s are discharged from their military service after spending three or more years in highly stressful and often life-threatening situations. They are expected to return to civilian life easily; often there is little attention given to the enormity of the horrors they have witnessed during their time in the military — they might have seen carnage and the deaths of fellow soldiers; they might have had to make life-and-death decisions. While many former soldiers can resume civilian life unaffected by the traumas they have witnessed, others struggle with the transition back to everyday life. Some experience difficulty with sleep, concentration, memory, anger management, and substance abuse; those symptoms can lead to full blown PTSD if left untreated.

The Peace of Mind program recognizes that this level of psychotrauma can be alleviated if it is addressed early on, by strengthening the emotional resilience of discharged combat soldiers. Engaging in therapeutic discussion outside of Israel, away from the stigma associated with therapy, and far away from family and work obligations, the soldiers can reconnect with their units and begin the process of healing.

In what is a truly unique and groundbreaking program, nine families welcomed a group of 18 strangers into their homes and treated them like family, while the larger community came together to organize barbecues, soccer and basketball games, Shabbat meals, and trips to the city. The communal feeling during the week was palatable.

IDF vets Yair Postolovsky, left, and Guillermo Bellek sit on either side of host Tzvi Small; Reuben Small stands behind his father. (Small family)

What is second nature to us, as Jews who live by the mantra kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh — all Jews are responsible for one another — can appear abnormal or counterintuitive to the unaffiliated. After all, who brings complete strangers into their homes?

For the IDF soldiers it was simply astonishing.

They could not fathom how people they had never met would welcome them into their homes so eagerly. They were surprised to learn how much our community cares about Israel. They were astounded by how focused we are on the daily events in the Middle East. They said that they had no idea that Israel mattered this much to the Jews in the rest of the world. It was illuminating for the soldiers to learn how much the IDF means to diaspora Jews. It was equally illuminating for us to see our community through the appreciative eyes of others.

The soldiers seemed genuinely surprised when we thanked them for protecting our homeland and allowing Jews the world over to feel safe and free. They could not grasp the magnitude of our appreciation. In the words of one of the soldiers, “this is the first time in my life that I see Zionism.”

Many expressed their admiration for the ease and openness of our modern Orthodox hashkafa — our outlook, our way of life — and lamented that it was difficult to find in Israel. They were amazed by the sheer size of our synagogue community and they were touched that so many of us had come out to meet them at barbecues and shul events — just to say to them “We support you.” They could not understand why we were doing all of this for them, even as we tried so hard to explain it to them.

The group gathers at Ahavath Torah for a final photo on the day that the soldiers returned to Israel. (Tani Foger)

One of the host families told them that he was a child in Hungary during the war, and he never could have dreamed that one day there would be an Israeli military to defend Jews. Being able to host two soldiers, he said, is his small way of saying thank you.

As the mother of four American sons who were not required to serve in the Israeli military, how could I not open my home to two soldiers who fight for the safety of Israel and Jews everywhere? It seemed like the least I could do.

On the final morning, after many hugs and photos, the soldiers boarded the bus to return to the airport and back to Israel, leaving behind a community that was greatly affected by their presence.

After a full week of intense therapy, they were now fully ensconced in creating pathways of discussion to allow for the healing process and a healthier re-entry into civilian life. As a community, we had further cemented our connection to the Israeli people. The 18 strangers had become lifelong friends.

The soldiers thanked us for hosting them. We tried hard to find the words to thank them for giving us the opportunity to do so. The Peace of Mind Program was life altering on both ends. It was so successful, in fact, that many more families are asking to be on the host list for next year.

Dr. Tani Foger, Ed.D, LPC, of Englewood is an educational consultant and psychologist. She and her husband, Soli Foger, are active members of Ahavath Torah and the parents of four sons.

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